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How to Successfully Onboard New Staff During a Global Pandemic

July 29, 2020

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Carolina Ramazzina van Moorsel

Program Manager - Africa
International Youth Foundation

In early April 2020, the International Youth Foundation (IYF) hired me as a Program Manager for Africa. Despite everyone’s uneasiness with the prospect of fully onboarding someone remotely (and during a pandemic), IYF’s thoughtful planning and committed leadership team created a meaningful virtual onboarding experience.

In order to reduce organizational anxiety around managing remote hiring and onboarding processes, I am sharing this simple how-to guide to help organizations achieve this endeavor successfully.

Here are five tips to successfully onboard employees during a global pandemic.

Plan as if there were no tomorrow

The week before I began my job at IYF, I received an email from our human resources (HR) representative with a month-long onboarding agenda detailing meeting times and topics and the people who would attend. I remember thinking, “wow, overkill!” but reflecting on it now, I now believe this is exactly what was needed.

If we think back to the experience of onboarding new staff in person, there are a few elements that are very different from what current times allow an organization to do. First, everyone is in the same physical space; therefore, schedules can be quickly communicated if needed, just by stopping by someone’s workspace. Second, when people are at work, there are no children, package deliveries, cooking, etc. to consider. Third, being in-person can effectively relieve some of the new employee’s anxiety, which is normally addressed in your first weeks at a new office through the guidance of staff.

Receiving a meaningful and detailed agenda for my first month the week before I started helped me:

  • Know what to expect, therefore reduced my anxiety;
  • Know that my organization had a plan and cared about me; and
  • Know who my point of contact was for specific meetings and onboarding.

In turn, that agenda helped my colleagues who would be part of my onboarding:

  • Plan the sessions they had to lead; and
  • Be aware that a new employee was coming on board.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

In line with the agenda I received and detailed on point one, IYF staff remained in contact with me from the moment I received an offer until I began employment with them in early April.

The day my new supervisor contacted me to offer me the position, he made sure I knew how to contact him and made clear that I was free to do so (even before I started) for any questions that might arise. By the time that call ended, I had his personal and work phone numbers, his email address, and his skype, and I also felt reassured that it was okay to reach out if I needed to.

In the three weeks that followed, I was contacted by various HR representatives who provided a roadmap for how the next weeks would go.

Knowing who my points of contact were and being reassured at various times that I could contact them at any point, set me up for success during my first month. In addition, their use of various means of communication appropriately replaced the many ways an employee can find help when they are in-person at an office.

Ensure information and tools are available

Key steps every organization should take before onboarding someone remotely include:

  • Creating a central document for new employees, that contains contact information for key people they might need to get in touch within their first weeks;
  • Ensuring working links to all onboarding documents; and
  • Maintaining a central database of all employees with their names, titles, and contact information. Assume everything will be new, and that it is better to share too much information than not enough.

Encourage the creation of pathways for current staff to meaningfully welcome new staff.

My HR person was very strategic about setting up meetings with most people on staff, even if some were brief meet-and-greets. Although all the meetings felt like too many at first,by the end of my first month in the organization, I had met nearly everyone on staff.

I still encountered the challenge of creating meaningful connections with people. The “bumping into each other” on our way to the kitchen and getting into quick chats in the cubicles no longer exists. A friend suggested I send out a “hello” email introducing myself more informally, to encourage people to reach out to me about things we might have in common. I sat with the idea for some time and decided to run it by our Chief of Staff, who from the very beginning had welcomed me with open arms. She thought it was an excellent idea, so I gathered the courage to write an introductory email. I added pictures of my cats and pasta my husband and I had made the previous week. I also included a line saying I would love to schedule an informal coffee with anyone who might be available. The minute I hit send on the message, I was so stressed out that I had to take a walk (inside my house, of course) and get away from my computer. I was terrified by people’s reactions and get annoyed by having yet another message in their inboxes.

When I finally returned to my desk, I was awed by the many emails from my colleagues. Some said: “I had been meaning to reach out to you for a coffee, let’s do it!”, others asked me for my pasta recipe or simply said: “We are so glad you are on board.”

Each one of us has different levels of comfort and ways of communicating. I encourage companies to explore ways to meaningfully engage with new employees, recognizing that creating opportunities to connect during these times is challenging. This exercise will lead to different outcomes depending on the organization and new employee. Yet, its importance cannot be understated to ensure a culture of belonging and camaraderie among staff, which has a direct impact on staff retention.

Create time for leadership to engage with new staff

INGO leadership, in normal times, is busy. Add to it a virus that is multiplying safety and financial risks and threatening the very existence of everyone’s business, and you have the perfect storm.

In my first two weeks at IYF, I had met with all members of its leadership team. These were not long meetings; they each lasted between 15-30 minutes, but they made a world of difference. After those meetings I had a better sense of what IYF was and what it stood for, I had a heightened sense of belonging, and I felt at ease in knowing that I could access those people should I need to.

I urge companies hiring during this time to put into practice what IYF’s leadership did.

The pandemic and remote work have forced us to be more purposeful about everything in our lives. Yes, it can be exhausting at times, but it can also be liberating and empowering knowing that if we take some deliberate steps, we can still do everyday things like going to the grocery store, or onboarding a new employee. The best part is, if we practice new ways of doing things long enough, they eventually become a regular part of doing business. So, the best way to practice this new way of onboarding is to start straight away!

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